'I was taking more than 100 pictures of my oven before work, and couldn't stop thinking about knives': What it's really like to have OCD

Anyone who describes themselves as 'a bit OCD' when they're just a neat freak needs to know what happened to me

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The Independent Online

Have you ever imagined stabbing someone? And when I say imagined, I mean pictured in intimate detail the knife, the blood, the screams, the consequences. I have. Because I’m living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And as its Mental Health Awareness week, I want to explain what that means.

It’s hard to pinpoint when my symptoms started. Looking back, I think the photos were the first sign things weren’t right. I mean, a non-OCD-type person doesn’t refuse to leave the house until they’ve photographed the dials on the oven 30 times, do they? At peak-OCD, I never thought I’d done enough to prevent catastrophe.

I thought I was going to leave the heating on and burn my flat down. I worried I’d forget to switch the oven off and burn my flat down. I was frightened my rabbit would escape his cage, chew through a wire, blow himself up and, you guessed it, burn my flat down.

I took photos on my camera phone to alleviate the crippling feelings of doubt. Did I switch my straighteners off? Let me consult the photos. I reasoned if a simple snap on my iPhone quelled the uncertainty bubbling through my veins, it was worthwhile.

It developed quickly. Soon I was taking more than 100 pictures of sockets and switches before work. I’d get locked in a cycle of checking and it could take me up to 45 minutes to leave the house. Even then I’d be overcome with fear while I walked to the bus stop. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. It was too embarrassing. Besides, I didn’t think I had OCD. To many, OCD is an eccentric personality trait.

People describe themselves as “a bit OCD” when what they mean is: I’m a neat freak. Programmes like Channel 4’s Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners don’t help. But me? I’m as messy as they come. I couldn’t have OCD.

When the intrusive thoughts started, I began to get really scared. Intrusive thoughts are the darker, less palatable side to the disorder. The checking was irritating, time-consuming at worst. But these were just plain terrifying. Violent images of death and destruction would pop into my head, unbidden. At my lowest point, I couldn’t look at a knife without picturing stabbing myself or anyone near me. The visualisations took on a cinematic quality: slow, vivid, and frighteningly real.

I thought I was going mad but I was too afraid to tell anyone in case I was thrown in a cell or carted off to an asylum. One desperate night I locked myself in my bedroom, petrified of what I thought I was capable of. I text my sister and asked her to hide the knives. She did. Can you imagine being so scared you might stab and kill someone that you physically isolate yourself? It’s the most shameful feeling in the world.

Fortunately, that night was my turning point. I typed “violent thoughts” into Google and discovered my symptoms, including obsessive checking, pointed towards OCD. I turned to the NHS and since January have been receiving Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to combat my disorder. It’s working and I have my final session next Tuesday. I can now leave the house without obsessively checking and intrusive thoughts haven’t plagued me for months. I’ve learned that that people with intrusive thoughts are non-violent and do not act on their unwelcome imaginings.

My OCD is not gone, it might never be gone, but I know now how to manage it. It angers me though to think I suffered for months because I didn’t know what OCD was. The symptoms portrayed in popular culture were not the ones I was experiencing. OCD isn’t about cleanliness or order, it’s about doubt and fear. It’s dark and scary and real.

If we’re to help sufferers, we need to make sure people are aware of its true, terrifying, nature.

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